Clay Buchholz Trade Crystallizes Rotation for Red Sox, Phillies

Earlier today, the Boston Red Sox traded starting pitcher Clay Buchholz to the Phillies in exchange for minor-league infielder Josh Tobias. In so doing, both teams have more or less crystallized their plans for their 2017 starting rotations.

For the Red Sox, this is about nailing down just who will be on the 2017 pitching staff. In his remarks to reporters, Red Sox head honcho Dave Dombrowski made specific mention that he feels the team is done wheeling and dealing for the 2017 squad, save some depth moves. In other words, those who are on the roster right now are the players with which the team expects to move forward. So, who are they? Let’s take a look:

Definite Starting Pitchers:

Likely Starting Pitchers:

As you can see, the rotation picture is now a lot more clear. Before Buchholz was traded, you had to wonder what his role would be. He pitched begrudgingly in relief last season, but his clear preference was to be in the rotation. But with six qualified starters ahead of him on the depth chart, that didn’t seem to be a likely scenario. And if it weren’t, how much fuss would Buchholz kick up? We’ll never have to find out now that he has been dealt.

What this leaves the Red Sox is a situation that may not be wholly unique, but is certainly enviable. While the identity of the fifth starter may not be completely clear now or even by Opening Day, the Red Sox now have six starters who are capable of handling a full starter’s workload. Rodriguez figures to be a full-time starter because he has been exclusively a starter in his career, but in Pomeranz and Wright, the Red Sox have two pitchers who have proved to be weapons in both starting and relief roles.

Drew Pomeranz & Steven Wright Starter/Reliever Splits
Starter Reliever
Drew Pomeranz 398.0 4.07 4.21 22.3% 12.3% 64.1 2.10 3.10 26.7% 18.4%
Steven Wright 215.0 3.52 4.04 19.0% 10.4% 48.2 3.88 4.02 19.0% 9.8%

A few notes about these splits. One, the samples are small. Two, they represent each pitcher’s career numbers, which partially obscures just how good each of them was last season. In any case, the most important takeaway is this: not only do both pitchers have familiarity with both starting and relief roles, but they have proven themselves adept at both. The important thing to note is that both pitchers can be kept on the active roster all season. When one is in the rotation, the other can pitch in a relief role, hopefully one that keeps him stretched out and ready to jump back into the rotation at any time. That type of flexibility would be fantastic, and depending on the pitchers’ willingness to move around, could be used to match up with opponents on a series-by-series basis.

This is very important because, as you probably know, most teams need more than five starters to make it through a season. Last season, 10 pitchers started a game for the Red Sox — five started 20 or more, one started 13 and four started six or fewer games. In theory, the Sox could make up a lot of those starts in the six or fewer category (there were 16 of them in total) with these six guys. In practice, injuries will obviously play a role, but on paper, the Red Sox are now set up very well.

Dealing away Buchholz allows this all to come into focus. Before the trade, you had to wonder how the rotation and staff in general would shake out, as it was unlikely the team could carry all seven of the potential starting pitchers on the active roster for the full season, as that would likely either create a strain on the high-leverage relievers or turn one of Pomeranz, Wright or Buchholz into a high-leverage reliever and thus limit their rotation flexibility. With Buchholz representing the only member of the starting rotation whose contract was soon ending, and given that you can never really know what to expect out of Buchholz, he was the most logical candidate for Boston to trade.

That the Red Sox didn’t receive much for him isn’t a surprise, and the venerable Chris Mitchell covered the return — Josh Tobias — in an InstaGraphs post. And there is something to be said for not keeping Buchholz around as a $13 million, perhaps-seldomly-used reliiver. If that helps them stay under the luxury tax or give them flexibility to make a further move either before or during the season, that’s also nice. But what they really received was the ability to enter the season with a more well defined pitching staff. For a team that has World Series aspirations, that clear picture heading into spring training could have intangible benefits. Players don’t need to worry about their roles, they can just come in and focus on getting ready for the season.

The same is not necessarily true in Philadelphia, but that team’s rotation strategy has become more clear as well. They now have a complete rotation of pitchers who’ve shown they’re capable of major-league success in Aaron Nola, Jeremy Hellickson, Vincent Velasquez, Jerad Eickhoff and Buchholz.

The acquisition of Buchholz buys more time for prospects Zach Eflin and Jake Thompson. Both still hold promise, but both faltered in their transition from Triple-A to the majors.

Zach Eflin & Jake Thompson 2016 AAA/MLB Splits
Triple-A Majors
Zach Eflin 68.1 2.90 2.55 20.9% 16.7% 63.1 5.54 5.48 11.4% 5.2%
Jake Thompson 129.2 2.50 3.82 16.8% 9.7% 53.2 5.70 6.17 13.5% 1.7%

Both were in their age-22 seasons, so it’s no shame for either to log some more Triple-A time — from which, as you can see by looking at their major-league stats, they might both benefit. With Buchholz now in the fold, Philadelphia has the luxury of giving both pitchers that additional time in Lehigh Valley.

At the same time, with both Buchholz and Hellickson becoming free agents after the 2017 campaign, the Phillies also have the luxury of trading them at midseason, either to free up a spot for Eflin or Thompson (or Mark Appel, I suppose, if you want to really think about low-probability future outcomes) or simply to maximize the value of them as the short-term assets that they are. Either way, acquiring Buchholz helps set the team well for both 2017 and beyond.

Clay Buchholz pitched for the Red Sox for a long time. In departing, he simplifies both Boston’s and Philadelphia’s starting-pitcher picture. Now entering his age-32 season, and with two sub-1 WAR seasons in his last five, it’s not quite clear that he will pitch for a long time in Philadelphia or elsewhere. But Philadelphia doesn’t need to worry about his long-term value. If he is able to give Philadelphia 15-30 good starts, it will buy some extra time for their important prospects, and possibly give Philly an intriguing trade chip at the trade deadline.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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Peter Bonneymember
7 years ago

Good lord, the Sox rotation next year could be 4 lefties and a guy we all thought was a lefty… (

7 years ago
Reply to  Peter Bonney

I actually thought Clay Buchholz was a lefty too for a while. Apparently he BATS left, so I’m not entirely wrong.

Vince Clortho
7 years ago
Reply to  Peter Bonney

Pretty sure Rick is a lefty tbh